We didn’t like him. Manshu was fourteen, and we were eight or ten, and, instead of playing with boys his own age, he forced himself into our games….Since he belonged to my aunt’s husband’s family, we had to show him the respect due to a family that takes a daughter away. The fact that I had to show deference was one more reason that he irritated me. And, because I was related to Manshu, the other boys treated me badly. They blamed me for his behavior, as if my family were responsible for whatever he was doing.
What does it even mean, to like someone, or not, in behavioral terms? You might have more contact with someone you like than with someone you don’t; you might do small kindnesses for them. If you seriously dislike someone, you might speak angrily to them, speak ill of them to others, or avoid him altogether. This story is a puzzle because, although the title and the first line is “We didn’t like him,” and it seems there is good reason for this (he’s a bully as a kid, and a huckster as an adult), the narrator’s behavior towards Manshu is generally cordial.
I found this a less-than-satisfying story, but I think that’s because it requires both more comprehension of the context and setting, and perhaps more reader-generated compassion, than I had. Normally, a boy who’d lost both his parents by his teens would intrinsically generate a certain empathy. Maybe it’s a special talent to write one who doesn’t. Or maybe I’m unusually heartless.
There’s a surface similarity to Lahiri’s “Brotherly Love” from a few week ago, since the primary characters are two boys growing up together in India. But where Lahiri’s story read like a family saga, this one covers far more time, yet is much shorter; it felt to me more like a parable.
The two primary characters seem to trade experiences. Manshu, for all his bad behavior in childhood, is experienced with loss, and it tempers him. In some ways the narrator learns about loss from him without having to actually lose anyone. When Manshu speaks of his mother (upon marrying a woman who, like the mother, has diabetes, shades of Freud), the narrator is surprised: “…being reminded of his mother took me aback. Since I no longer thought of her, it had not occurred to me that his mother continued to be real to him.” This is what loss is like for someone who has not experienced it.
Later, the narrator does experience loss. His father dies, and he resents how Manshu, now the temple pandit (and a tacky one at that) thanks to the recommendation of the father, handles the funeral prayers. It’s interesting that this is the inspiration for the story; in his Page Turner interview Sharma describes how he attended a funeral with a similarly tacky pandit, and set out to write a story to mock him. Instead, when he applied the name Manshu – a derivation of the word for “humanity” – he found his own compassion: “As soon as I gave the character this name, I suddenly felt that we are all foolish. We all do dopey things. My heart went out to him and also to the poor narrator.” I’m not so sure that was communicated to the reader. Not this one, at least.
When Manshu in turn loses his wife, the narrator performs a host of duties, yet nurses his resentment about his father’s prayers. The story turns on an act of revenge, as he pours the funerary ashes of Manshu’s wife into the river:
Feeling of the bag lighten, I realized that I was doing something wrong. When I poured my father’s ashes into the river, I had been glad that I was doing him this service, that I was taking care of him in this way. It was not fair to Aruna that someone outside her family was pouring her ashes into the river. It was not fair to Manshu that I was taking away this chance to care for his wife.
What’s interesting about this is that this revenge only seems to be revenge to the narrator; Manshu doesn’t seem to care. Maybe he’ll care later. Maybe that’s the context, the subtext, maybe that’s what the narrator is counting on. But what actually happens is that he seems to feel guilt, and he continues to take care of Manshu, down to washing his feet.
Maybe this is the crux of the story: what is reality, and the construct we make of reality? Which counts? If the narrator feels he has exacted his vengeance, yet Manshu does not feel any slight, has vengeance in fact been done? If the narrator washes Manshu’s feet out of guilt, does it assuage the guilt?
This closing mirrors the opening, with the narrator once more showing deference to Manshu. He takes his responsibilities seriously, whether or not Manshu is even capable of noticing or appreciating. I suppose that’s what responsibility is, when it comes down to it. You do what you’re supposed to do, because you’re supposed to do it.